02: Comparing Skills

Not-Quite Human 1

The Cuckoo’s Progeny

02: Comparing Skills


Betty answered the quiet knock, letting her brother in. She’d been expecting him.

“Telling Mom and Dad you took me out for dinner was a clever move.”

“Yeah, they noticed your being … distracted, fidgety and staring off into space. They’re worried about you—just as they were with my running off to rescue you.”

“Well, they appreciate your supporting me. It’ll help the two of us sneak off tomorrow.”

“We need to discuss what we’re dealing with. People don’t pick up strange new abilities; especially when they aren’t even physically possible. How can you sense things from miles away, while I anticipate what hasn’t even happened yet?”

She shrugged, glancing out the window. “I don’t understand it either. I was … searching. Like you, it started yesterday. I’m not completely sure I’m the one with the talent. It may be some object drawing me, an external event. All I know is it’s essential I find it.”

“Still, whether it’s pulling you or you’re seeking it, there’s got to be something receiving a signal. So we’re back to my original question: is it biological, genetic, or is there some object inside us we’re not aware of?”

“Hopefully we’ll learn when we locate it. For now, we’re operating by instinct. We can’t begin to analyze these impulses until we get more data. If it’s an inanimate object, it’s different than if it’s a living entity. With luck, we’ll have a better idea after tomorrow.”

He stood, running his hand through his hair and closing his eyes. “Thanks for the encouragement. I was hoping to convince myself this isn’t a wild-goose chase. Despite my own ability, I’m tempted to assume it’s all your imagination.”

“We won’t know until we determine what it is. If it’s nothing, I’ll drop it. However, this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“Yeah,” he mumbled, opening her door and walking out, “the perfect chance to get mugged!”

“It’s wonderful you are spending the day with your sister. Shopping together will be good for you. You can both have fun while meeting new people.”

“Mom, Be and I get along phenomenally. We’ve never had any significant issues.”

“I wish you wouldn’t call her that. Why can’t you use her name?”

“Relax, Mom. I don’t mind. After what he did, he can call me anything he wants!”

Amanda Collins cocked her head, leaning against the kitchen counter. “And what did he do for you?”

“Why, offer to take me shopping, of course.” Betty laughed, enjoying teasing their mother. “But beyond that, he was especially pleasant last night. After he rescued me from the park, he took me to dinner and talked me down. I was a little … freaked out.”

Amanda was a young, vibrant woman, despite having two grown kids. Her hair caressed her face, and her brilliant eyes were set off by her pale skin and the bright cheeks of the Irish.

Betty was the most similar to their mother, with light-brunette hair which only looked partially reddish in the correct light. They both wore their hair in matching styles, hanging free around their faces, since it wouldn’t listen to what they wanted. Al’s hair was closer to his father’s, though that was about all they had in common. Both had mostly straight black hair with a hint of brown, and their skin was so white it almost hurt your eyes. Yet Macy Collins was a short, muscular man, while Al was tall, gangly and strikingly thin. Macy also had a poor complexion, unmanageable hair and pinched eyebrows, none of which his son inherited. Most people looked doubtful when their parents introduced them as their kids.

“While you’re out, you might introduce him to one of your friends, or better yet, push him to approach a girl on his own. He’s been single for much too long. It’s not good for a young man to spend so much time on his own.”

“It’s not that kind of an outing,” Betty said. “He’s not taking me to hang with my friends. We’re honestly spending the day together.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t help him with his self-esteem.”

“Hey,” Al argued. “Be’s not in a relationship either.”

“You don’t need to remind me,” their mother said, rolling her eyes. “Okay, now that breakfast is finished, you—”

Before she could finish the sentence, Al leapt up. “Excuse me, but … I’ll be out by the car warming it up.” He disappeared before Amanda could register a protest. She turned to her daughter, but Betty grabbed her purse—actually a small backpack—and took out after him. “I better go,” she said, glancing back. “He … might get bored and leave without me.”

Finding herself in an empty kitchen with the kid’s plates abandoned for her to clean up, she shook her head. “I’ll never get used to kids this age. They’re so … unpredictable.” She picked up their dishes, carrying them back to the sink to rinse. “One moment they’re calm, the next they’re dashing out like the house is on fire.”

Betty ran outside in time to witness her brother running full tilt towards the street. Remembering his newfound talent, she imagined what might provoke such a response and took out after him. “Stay back!” he shouted, though she didn’t listen. Realizing she was following, he yelled over his shoulder. “Look both ways!”

Not understanding, she didn’t give it much thought as he raced across the road without looking. When she reached the street, she saw him bend over. Remembering his words, she glanced down the road and saw a car barreling towards them. She halted just in time. As Al grabbed a small boy running between the parked cars lining the street, a black SUV flew by, narrowly missing them. It never slowed, flying gravel striking Betty’s legs.

Betty took a deep breath, standing beside the road grasping her chest. She saw their neighbor, Mrs. Monica Lopez, rushing forwards.

“Oh, my baby!” she shrieked. Al handed her bundle of joy to her and she tightly hugged the five-year-old. Betty risked crossing their normally quiet street as Monica threw one arm over Al’s shoulder, planting a big kiss on his lips. “Thank you ever so much! You saved Malcolm’s life. If you hadn’t been here, he’d be dead!”

Al blushed. “It was nothing. I was in the right place at the …”

She shushed him with another kiss before pulling back. “It was more than that. You were sent from above to rescue my baby.” As Malcolm began to struggle, she released her hold on Al, who backed up.

“Anyone would do the same,” he said.

Monica was a pretty thing in her mid to late 20’s. She had longer, curlier hair similar to Al’s, dark and lustrous. She always wore the widest smile, and her teeth shone bright in the early morning sunlight. “The hell they would! You were almost hit as well. You were standing there as the SUV raced by. If you didn’t risk your life, my baby wouldn’t be here now.”

Realizing her brother didn’t know how to extricate himself, Betty stepped in. “He’s much too humble to take credit for anything.” She wrapped her arm around his. “Now, weren’t you about to take me shopping?”

“Oh, yeah! In all the excitement, I almost forgot. Sorry to rescue your baby and run, but my sister’s pocketbook awaits.”

“Go on,” she said, waving them off as she set her son back on the ground. Without waiting to say anything, he ran across the street after the ball he’d been chasing. “Malcolm! Watch the street when you cross. You almost got killed!”

“Some kids never learn,” Al teased.

“If the idiot hadn’t been racing down suburban streets, it wouldn’t be an issue. You’d think they’d know there are children here! Anyway, have a wonderful day. I don’t want to keep you.”

Waving, the two siblings ran across the street and climbed in Al’s car, backed up and drove—very slowly—away from the scene of Malcolm’s rescue.

“So, Monica was quite chummy,” Betty said, studying her brother.

“She was just thankful, like you were. People tend to prefer not dying.”

“I’m your sister. I’m allowed to kiss my brother. She was being forward. Which is especially inappropriate since her son was right there. She’s supposedly happily married too.”

Al glanced at her before turning back to the road. “It was just a kiss, the same kind you gave me. It was a thank you. That’s all. She didn’t mean anything by it.”

Betty turned her head away, glancing out at the passing street. “That’s what you think. You wouldn’t know if someone was interested in you if she gave you a lap dance.”

“Look who’s talking. As I told Mom, you’re no more experienced in the romance department than I am.”

“No, but I’m a woman. We notice these things. If something is staring a guy in the face, he won’t notice it.”

Focusing on traffic, he didn’t even try to meet her eyes. “You’re imagining things. She’s a sweetie. She’d never do anything inappropriate.”

“Sure. She’s sweet to you, but only because she likes you. You’d be surprised what some women can do.”

“Do you hear yourself? This is Monica. We’ve known her for years. What’s this about? You aren’t jealous, are you?”

Her head spun around, her hand rising to her chest. “Me, envious? Of what? I just think you need to find someone closer to your age.”

“You’re not being terribly objective. Monica couldn’t be nicer. She’s never tried anything with me.”

“That you recognize,” she sniffed, glancing out the window again.

“Getting back on topic; how does this work? How do I know when to turn?”

“Keep driving. We’ll start from where you rescued me yesterday, but it’s a turn-by-turn thing. There’s no doubt, I arrive at an intersection and simply understand which way to go.”

“Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for?”

“No, I don’t understand what’s drawing me, but the pull is clear. It might be an animal, mineral or vegetable, but we need to find it.”

“Okay, assuming it’s like my new talent, let’s assume you’re correct. What if it’s hundreds of miles away? What then?”

“I doubt it will be. I wouldn’t detect it if it was.”

“You thought it was close by yesterday, but you walked all day and got no closer. What’s to say we get no nearer today either?”

“Then we keep trying,” she said.

“I’m not saying I won’t help, but we need to define our parameters. Did you bring lunch?”

“I planned to pack one, but you ran out of the house like a jackrabbit. I didn’t want to go back in and admit what you’d done. We’d be answering questions all day and Mom would never let us out the door again.”

“Okay, so we’re buying lunch. Luckily there are tons of fast food joints which won’t take long. How long do we search before we give it up for the day? Does this internal compass give you the shortest route, or the quickest?”

“What do you mean? Aren’t they the same?”

“Hardly. Taking the interstate is faster than driving all day along local roads. If you’re doing this on a street-by-street basis, it’s not an efficient process. We should triangulate the location instead of driving randomly. Besides, I’d rather avoid troublesome regions.”

“What if what I’m searching for is in a dangerous area?” she asked, turning to study him.

“Then maybe it’s safer leaving it alone. I don’t want to risk losing you for some rock.”

“You never know,” she giggled. “It may be a diamond.”

“Then it’ll be in a jewelry store, not out on the street. We don’t get many natural diamonds in this region of the country.”

She wiped her brow, fanning herself. “Could you turn on the air conditioning?”

“It’s pleasant outside. If you’re warm, roll up your sleeves. The windows accentuate the sun and your cotton top retains heat.”

Instead of following his advice, she tugged the sleeves of her garment further down, massaging her wrists. “How about you? As you said, it’s warm, but you’re wearing a long-sleeve work shirt.”

“I might need to move something,” he said, focusing on the road.

“That’s silly and you know it. Just roll your own sleeves up or turn on the air conditioner.”

Sighing, Al rolled his window down. “Does that help?”

“Not really, it’s just blowing the warm air around and messing up my hair. What’s the issue with using the air conditioner?”

Betty noticed they’d turned, following a different road.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to where we met yesterday. I travel by there every day; this is the fastest route.”

“But it’s not the way I went. If what I’m searching for moved, we may miss it.”

“We can always double back, but there’s no sense wasting time putzing around if we can avoid it.”

“That sounds reasonable,” she agreed. “By the way, whoever taught you Yiddish? Monica?”

He didn’t bother responding, recognizing it for the viper’s pit it was.

“Wait, where are you going? We’re heading in the wrong direction again,” Betty argued, pointing the way they’d been traveling.

“It’s an emergency,” he said. “With luck, this won’t take long, but we can’t dawdle.”

“Is this something you anticipate happening?” When he nodded, she focused her attention on the new task, rather than their old one. Whatever they were seeking would wait. After all, it hadn’t shifted much the entire time they were tracking it.

Al made two rapid turns and ended up in a residential neighborhood. He pulled to a stop before a small, rundown cottage. Turning off the car, he got out and headed for the front door at a trot.

“Should I bring something?” Betty called.

Instead of answering, he waved the question off, too focused on rescuing someone to respond. She hurried after him, anticipating the worst.

When they reached the door, there was noise of a struggle inside, with someone gurgling and knocking over items while the other growled. Both were panting.

Without hesitating, Al opened the door. After their encounter the previous day, Betty wasn’t surprised it was unlocked, but wasn’t eager to confront what awaited them.

There, lying on the floor, were a couple: a bearded man choking a light-skinned black woman. There were items strewn around, the obvious aftereffects of a drawn-out fight. The woman was clutching her throat, unable to breathe, while the man was panting with the effort of squeezing the life from her. Al rushed in without hesitation.

“Leave her alone!” he shouted, smashing the man in the side of the face—the couple didn’t notice them entering. The man was rattled, but didn’t release her. Al smashed him in the nose, which got his attention. Free from his grasp, the woman gasped as she filled her lungs with fresh air. Betty dragged her from the man’s grasp.

“Tha… thanks,” she said, her eyes glazed and sweat collecting along her brow. “I was sure … it was over!”

The man scrambled to his feet, holding his nose, which was bleeding. “Who the hell are you? What are you doing in our house?”

“I’m stopping you from committing murder,” Al answered, standing between him and the women.

“I just saved you from a death penalty trial,” Al said, glancing over his shoulder to ensure she was okay. “I suggest you get out of here, at least until he regains his senses.”

“I don’t need to do anything,” she argued, slurring her words. “Taylor just gets a little excited. Who the hell are you to stalk into our house and start issuing orders?”

“She ain’t going nowhere!” the man bellowed, launching himself at the newcomer. He threw a punch. Being forty pounds heavier it would have been devastating, but Al just stepped aside and the man stumbled past, overcompensating. To keep his distance, Al pushed him away, causing the man to tumble into a coffee table. He landed with a whoosh of air as the table cracked.

“What the hell?” the woman yelled from behind them. Betty tried to grab her, but not possessing her brother’s talents, hadn’t anticipated her response. She slipped past, leaping on his back, beating him with her hands.

“Leave Taylor alone! He didn’t mean nuthin.”

Al spun, trying to disengage her, not wanting to hurt the victim, but she was having none of it.

“Leave us alone!” she bellowed in his ear, punching and kicking him.

Betty grabbed her from behind, but instead of pulling her off, got dragged along as they swung in awkward circles, stumbling over the furniture.

“He was killing you!” Al reminded her.

“He didn’t mean it. He gets … carried away when he’s been drinking.”

Changing directions, spinning the other way, the woman and Betty slid off his back, crashing to the floor. She elbowed Betty, scrambling to her feet. In an effort to draw them away, Al backed towards the door.

“Calm down. I was just trying to help.”

“I wouldn’t hurt her!” the man insisted.

“He’d let me go once I passed out,” the woman said, blood dripping from several small lacerations to her face, one eye already swelling shut. “He’s done it before.”

They weren’t a bad looking couple. The girl was young, early twenties with dimples which stood in sharp contrast to her murderous scowl. The man was bearded, with patches of hair ripped out. He seemed like a young, urban professional, though the drab apartment spoke volumes of his career successes. Empty bottles, a few shattered, littered their living room.

“I’ll kill you!” the woman screamed.

“Look, we’re leaving. Okay? I only wanted to ensure you weren’t killed. If you want to stay for him to try a second time, that’s on your dime, but don’t expect us to rescue you the next time.”

“I would have been fine,” she insisted.

“NO! You wouldn’t. You were moments from dying. He wasn’t going to stop.”

“Get the hell out of our house!” Taylor bellowed.

Betty took the opportunity to run to the door. Both occupants of the house were focused on Al.

“I’m getting a knife,” the battered woman proclaimed.

“We’re leaving!” Al fled, slamming the door behind him and stumbling down the steps. The front door burst open as they were climbing into the car. The man rushed them with a two-by-four, so Al started the car and peeled out without waiting to buckle up. The man threw the lumber at their car, breaking his tail light, cursing as they fled.

“That could have gone better,” Betty said.

“Geez! You think? Who knew someone would defend their murderer?”

“Women often side with their attacker, especially if they hope to change them,” she said. “Would he really have killed her?”

“Do you think I’d get involved if she’d be okay otherwise?” he asked, pulling to a stop a couple blocks away. Turning the car off, he got out to inspect the damage, limping as he circled the car.

“You’re bleeding. Being the hero isn’t all hugs and kisses. You got cocky. Didn’t you anticipate that happening?”

“Yeah,” he admitted, rubbing his side. “But I didn’t know what else to do.”

“By the way, that was a fast move, dodging his blow like that. I never realized you were such a fighter.”

He chuckled. “I anticipated it. I was moving before he ever threw his punch. Even so, I sort of surprised myself. My problem was pushing him. If he hadn’t fallen into the table, things would have ended happier, or at least less frantically.”

“We’d better move,” she suggested. “They’re likely to come after us if we dawdle.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m eager to get as far away from here as possible.”

“If you see a neighborhood insurance company, let me buy some life insurance for you. This ability is going to get you killed.”

“You and me both! Superpowers aren’t for your health, that’s for sure!”

“Okay, I need a direction here,” Al said, still clutching his side. “Do we go left, right or straight?”

“I … I don’t know.”

“Wait, I thought you could always tell? Which is it?”

She paused, holding her hand up with her face scrunched, so Al pulled over while waiting for her to decide. It made no sense driving just to double back again. They’d done that enough. She kept leading him in one direction, only to discover it led to a dead-end or was blocked by a river or bluff. Each time, they’d turn around and start again. He was frustrated and ready for a break. They’d been at this for hours with no evidence they were any closer.

“That’s strange,” she said.

“What is?”

“Whatever I’m following, I’m being led in two different directions. That must mean I’m close enough to distinguish them. There’s clearly more than one, and they’re in separate locations, so I don’t know which way to go.”

“That’s easy enough,” Al said, putting the car in gear. “We’ll pick one. If we find something, we’ll at least comprehend what we’re searching for.”

She shook her head, her hair flipping with her conviction. “No. If we give up on one, it may not be there when we return. I don’t want to take a chance.”

“On the other hand, if we don’t do anything, they might both disappear.”

“I thought they were stable, since I’ve been steadily tracking them to the same location. I now realize we were too far away.”

He put his car back in park, laying his head on the steering wheel. “So what do you suggest we do?”

“We should wait and see if either one moves. We’re obviously close. In fact, we’re near enough I can now sense how far away they are. I didn’t before. It feels like two distinct objects. If neither one shifts, we’ll know they’re stationary. However, if one travels, we’ll know which is more likely to get away.”

Al leaned back, nestling into his seat and closing his eyes. “How did searching for imaginary objects get so complicated? Is there anything left to eat? I’m starving. Lunch didn’t last long.”

She reached into her purse/backpack. “I think I’ve got some Skittles in here.”

“It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.” Instead of waiting, he put the car back in gear and eased back into traffic.

“Where are we going? I thought we decided to wait?”

“You decided, but I’m not objecting. I’d rather wait somewhere I can get something to drink. A pee wouldn’t hurt either.”

She could see his logic. After all, if the objects hadn’t moved the entire time they’d been following them, they were unlikely to disappear now.

He located a gas station and they both got out. Betty stood by the car, trying to sense where the objects were while he went inside, searching for food. He’d just purchased two drinks, sandwiches and chips when she poked her head in the door.

“One’s moving. They’re converging. It’s a good thing we waited. Now we can find them at the same place.”

He grabbed his purchases and hurried out, the attendant not paying them the least bit of attention.

“So which way do we go?” he asked as they ran to his car.

“Let’s wait to see where it stops. I’m hoping they’ll end up in the same place, but as long as one’s moving, we won’t know for sure.”

“You couldn’t wait to tell me then? How about we trail the closest one?”

“That works. Get in and I’ll direct you.”


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